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Prescribed fire season starts at Arboretum, preserve

March 28, 2018 By Susan Day

UW Arboretum land care staff member Austin Pethan uses a drip torch as a ten-person staff manages a prescribed fire at the Arboretum in spring 2016. Prescribed burns are scheduled for this week as well. Photo: Jeff Miller

The spring prescribed fire season is underway at the UW–Madison Arboretum and the campus’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve, and several fires are planned for Wednesday, March 28.

Both natural areas manage many acres of native Wisconsin ecosystems — remnant and restored prairies, oak savannas, and oak woodlands — that need fire to stay healthy. Prescribed fire restores a natural process, stimulates native vegetation growth and seed production, improves wildlife habitat, and provides valuable training and research opportunities.

Arboretum crews plan to burn small areas of native plant garden and prairie near the Visitor Center today, March 28, if weather conditions cooperate. Prescribed fires are usually set in early spring (March through May) and sometimes in late fall. They are conducted within a strict set of parameters, called the prescription, that include temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and fuel conditions.

Before and during each burn, the fire manager checks that all expected parameters are within prescribed ranges to conduct a safe fire, with good smoke lift, that meets the land care goals. Prescribed fire crew members have taken wildland fire training, and use protective clothing and equipment.

Native prairies, oak savannas, and oak woodlands evolved to rely on fire for regeneration. Prescribed fires mimic natural ones, but are set and managed under controlled conditions. Prescribed fires can help combat invasive plant species while safely removing old and dry plant material to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires.

The ecological benefits are many, and the safety of crew and visitors is always a top priority. Prescribed fire can burn very hot and fast.

Smoke may be the most visible sign for visitors, neighbors and travelers on nearby roads. Visitors to the Arboretum and the Preserve might see posted signs alerting the public to burn activity and closed trails, or swaths of blackened areas after a burn.

If you happen to be visiting the Arboretum or the Preserve during a fire, please follow these safety precautions:

  • Always stay off trails and firebreaks that are closed for a prescribed fire, and do not leave open trails
  • Keep a safe distance from smoke, flames and heat
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct movement of crew, equipment and vehicles
  • Do not distract a prescribed fire crew

Mopping up after flames are out is also a critical time for safety and fire management, so please continue to observe these precautions around any site with an active fire crew.

Neither the Arboretum nor the Preserve is located within a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fire protection area. Both get permission from the cities of Madison or the Fitchburg (depending on prescribed fire location) and notify local officials before every fire is ignited.

See the Arboretum’s Prescribed Fire Updates page [] for seasonal information. Or call the Visitor Center at 608-263-7888 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays or 12:30 to 4 p.m. weekends.

For information about prescribed fire in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, call the program manager at 608-265-9275 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.